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October 2007

Posts from September 2007

Nineteen Minutes: Jodi Picoult

Book: Nineteen Minutes
Author: Jodi Picoult
Pages: 464
Age Range: 15 and up (published for adults, but featuring high school students)

Although I'm a fan of Jodi Picoult's writing, I hesitated to read Nineteen Minutes for a while, because it seemed a bit too close to home in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. But I always intended to read it, and when I ran across it on my library's shelf the other day, I brought it home. And once I started, I couldn't put it down until I was finished. I don't think that Nineteen Minutes is for everyone, because of the disturbing subject matter (a dissection of a high-school shooting incident, before, during, and after). But I think that it's Jodi Picoult's best work, even better than my previous favorite, My Sister's Keeper.

Picoult demonstrates her mastery of three things in this book: incorporating shifting points of view, maintaining suspense, and tackling moral shades of gray. Nineteen Minutes, although a third person narrative, alternates between the viewpoints of the various people affected by the school shooting, from the shooter to his parents and his former best friend to the detective, lawyer, and judge involved with the case. Each person's viewpoint is distinct and tight as a drum (there's no question of whose viewpoint it is, no incidents of a person knowing something that they shouldn't).

Picoult uses the different viewpoints to maintain suspense, no mean feat in a book which we already know is about a school shooting with fatalities. We know early on who the shooter is. But there's suspense about other things, big and small. Why did he do it? Why did he leave certain people alive, and target other? Did he plan everything out in advance? What happened to his older brother? What secret is the judge's daughter hiding? What happened to their friendship?

It's also through these distinctive viewpoints that Picoult explores the shades of gray in something that, on the surface, appears to be a black and white issue. She takes us into the broken heart of the shooter's mother, who can't understand how she could have raised someone who would do this. She shows us the shooter as a sensitive and happy five year old, excited to start school. And she shows us the years of bullying and cruelty inflicted on the shooter by some of his eventual victims. Nineteen Minutes is a searing indictment of the quest for popularity, and the ways in which people who are insecure about their own place can harm others.

Picoult doesn't excuse the shooter for the harm that he's caused, but she does explain him a bit. And she makes it clear that, at least in this fictional case, the shooting could have been prevented, if any of a variety of people had interceded along the way. She did considerable research for this book, including talking with survivors of an actual school shooting. You can read the details on her web page, where you'll also find book discussion questions, and links to resources on school violence and prevention. This isn't some sensationalist book that's trying to take advantage of the notoriety of school shootings. Nineteen Minutes is an attempt to understand the complex set of factors that drive kids to violence, and in doing so, to provide keys for staving off violence in the future. But it's far from a message book -it's a compelling, richly detailed novel, populated with complex and realistically flawed characters. I highly recommend Nineteen Minutes. And although it's published as adult fiction, I think that it would make an excellent discussion book for parents or teachers and teens.

Publisher: Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: March 2007
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Books Now Available: Dumped by Popular Demand

I reviewed The Social Experiments of Dorie Dilts: Dumped by Popular Demand, by P. G. Kain a couple of weeks ago, and wanted to let you know that it's scheduled for publication on Tuesday (but apparently already available from Amazon). Here's what I said about it:

"This book is adorable. It's sweet and funny and quirky, and I want it to be made into a movie as soon as possible (maybe preferably by Disney Pictures and/or John Hughes)."

This is a great read for tween girls, especially right now, early in the school year, when middle school social structures may be more fluid than usual.

Books Now Available: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

Eric Berlin's middle grade novel The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, which I reviewed from ARC, is now available. The story is a mystery, and the book is filled to the brim with all sorts of puzzles. I said in my review:

I know that I would have absolutely adored this book when I was 11 years old, in the midst of my own puzzle phase. Even as an adult reader, I found myself spending a lot more time on this book that I initially anticipated, because I was compelled to stop and work out most of the puzzles.

To learn more, and see more puzzles, check out Winston's puzzle blog.

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac: Gabrielle Zevin

Book: Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Pages: 288
Age Range: 13 and up 

Today I am pleased to point you to a tri-review that I conducted with Jules and Eisha of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Together, in round-robin fashion, we reviewed Gabrielle Zevin's Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. And I must say, it was a lot of fun discussing Zevin's book with Eisha and Jules. Here's part of the 7-Imp intro to the review:

"In this novel, we meet seventeen-year-old Naomi, who takes a tumble down her high school steps one day after losing a coin toss with her best friend and co-editor of the yearbook, Will, over who should go back into the building to get the yearbook's camera. She wakes to find that the past four years of her memory have been wiped clean and that she's being assisted in the ambulance by a rather handsome fellow student about whom she knows nothing. Thus begins her journey of self-discovery as she tries to put back the puzzle pieces of her life, trying to remember Ace, her boyfriend; the complicated relationship she had with Will; why her parents are divorced; and why it takes her father a good while to tell her he's now engaged. There's also the issue of her mother's new family, including a half-sister Naomi doesn't remember at all."

We continue by comparing the book to Zevin's first YA novel, Elsewhere, and then discussing the premise, characterization, writing style, etc. We also touch on our feelings about the ending, and the themes in the book. Also not be missed is an apt comparison by Eisha of one of the characters to a certain 80's high school movie character. Click through here to read the full review.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: September 2007
Source of Book: Review copy, passed along to me by Jules
Other Blog Reviews: Reading and Breathing, kpl_teens, Oops...Wrong Cookie, the YA YA YAs, Hypothetically Speaking, AmoXcalli, and others
Author Interviews: Estella's Revenge

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

In Case Anyone is Interested...

My profile is up at the Cybils blog. With a different photo than the one on my own site. Profiles of other team members will be posting throughout the next week or so, as we gear up to October 1st. On the 1st, we'll start accepting nominations! So, start thinking now about books that you think are kid-friendly and well-written, beautiful and engaging. Let your voice be heard.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: September 17

Here's some children's literacy and reading related news that caught my eye this week:

  • Via my friend D, when you pay your Verizon bill (for cell phones, at least) you have an option to donate a dollar to literacy programs supported by Verizon. Verizon matches the contributions.
  • According to a press release that they sent me: "Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. ... has been awarded a $25,000 grant from Staples Foundation for Learning. These funds will be used to provide literacy trainings to early childhood childcare providers throughout the country. This is the third grant RIF has received from Staples Foundation for Learning. These grants have provided more than 100 early childhood caregivers with the trainings and resources necessary to create literacy-rich environments for the children in their care."
  • There are lots of fun literacy activities going on in Florida. According to a short article on WJHG, "Various state agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Lottery and the Florida Literacy Coalition are hosting a statewide literacy (event) all September long. Visitors to any Florida State Park ... can enter just by a showing library card or library book at the entrance. People can also donate new or gently used family books to gain free access to the park. Local library are also holding a library sign up month sponsored by the American Library Association. This library event hopes to encourage parents and kids to hold their own family story time at home."
  • Jamaica is also working on literacy. According to Jamaica Information Services, "The Ministry of Education is in the process of selecting 50 cluster-based literacy coordinators, who will work with the regional literacy coordinators in order to raise the level of literacy in schools."
  • The Heart of America Foundation and Target worked together recently to refurbish Washington Elementary School's library in San Jose, "enlivening it with new carpet, paint, counters, furniture and an infusion of 2,000 more books." Details are in the San Jose Mercury News (sign-in required). This particular library was selected because it's something of a community center for the area.
  • The Beaufort Gazette (SC) has a feature article about the local Born to Read program, which encourages new mothers to read to their babies. "Born To Read's 30 volunteers try to visit all new moms in Beaufort County hospitals six days a week, including holidays. Last year, they saw 2,300."
  • The Olympian (WA) has an education section feature about things parents can do at home to help their kids with math and reading. The very first point is that "One of the most important things parents can do with young children to help them learn to read — and enjoy it — is to read with them 20 minutes or more every day."

Happy reading to all!

The Call for World Punctuation Day

I was quoted today in an article by Eric Shackle in the South Korean citizen reporters' journal OhmyNewsInternational. This came about because, in one of my previous Children's Literacy Round-Ups, I mentioned National Punctuation Day (coming up on September 24th). This holiday was started in 2004 by former newspaperman Jeff Rubin to draw attention to the importance of proper punctuation.

After I wrote about that, via the magic of Google alerts, reporter Eric Shackle wrote to me from Sydney, Australia that he'd "like to see it expand to a World Publication Day." I said something like that I had no control over that, but I thought he could declare it himself, and people wouldn't argue. And he did! In this article, he makes a call to expand the US National Punctuation Day into World Punctuation Day. The article also discusses Britain's Apostrophe Protection Society, and receives support from its founder for World Punctuation Day.

So, when World Punctuation Day takes off and becomes a huge, celebrity-studded event, I shall have my tiny footnote. Now if I had only mentioned Finding Wonderland's Most Egregious Misuse posts...

Robert's Snow Blog Project Update

Last Thursday I mentioned the Robert's Snow blog event to fight cancer that's being organized by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The idea is that kid lit bloggers will write individual posts about illustrators who are creating custom art snowflakes for the Robert's Snow effort, and use the posts to drive traffic to the auctions for the snowflakes. Today I am so pleased to report (after word from Jules) that the more than 150 illustrators on the original list have already all been snatched up by more than 60 participating blogs. You can find the complete list here. What an amazing testimonial to the power of the Internet, and the strength of the kid lit blogging community. Not to mention the organizational prowess of Jules herself. It's a wonderful thing to be part of.

Well, technically I'm not part of it, because I'm not featuring any of the illustrators, but, along with several other blogs (like Read Write Believe; Robin Brande; Journey Woman; JacketFlap; The Reading Tub; Miss Erin; Bottom Shelf Books; Roz Fulcher; Liz In Ink; and Mitali's Fire Escape), I am going to help Jules to promote the event as much as I can. Because I think it's a great thing, and one that deserves lots of attention. You can read more here.

The House Takes a Vacation: Jacqueline Davies

Book: The House Takes a Vacation
Author: Jacqueline Davies
Illustrator: Lee White
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4 to 8

The House Takes a Vacation, written by Jacqueline Davies and illustrated by Lee White, is hilarious from cover to cover. The text would be funny all by itself, and then the illustrations take things to another level. The story starts when the Peterson family heads off on vacation. The house, consisting of distinct personalities in the front door, sunporch, bedroom windows, roof, chimney, and basement, decides that it deserves a vacation, too. After some quarreling over the whole thing, they decide to head to the beach. So the house picks itself up off of it's foundation, and heads off on a variety of skinny little legs, looking for adventure.

I think that The House Take a Vacation would be perfect for slightly older kids, first to third graders, rather than for younger kids. There's a lot of text, and some relatively subtle puns. I can imagine kids giggling away at the silliness of the puns and other wordplay, and at the behavior of the different parts of the house. I first knew that I was in for something fun on the first page of text, with this passage:

"Dudes," said the roof, "there's no way I'm spending my vacation with the stuccoed-up houses in this neighborhood."

Hah! Stuccoed-up houses. And a roof that says "Dudes". I love it. Then there's the sibling rivalry of the two bedroom windows, and the way that the front door always chimes in with "I'll lead the way." Or this:

"You're such a stick-in-the-mud," said the roof, but the basement refused to rise to the occasion.

It gets better (or worse, depending on your tolerance for puns). After a long trip to the beach, the roof feels like he has shingles, and the chimney might have the flue. And then the windows creak "Oh! The pane! The pane!" Is this great stuff, or what?

The illustrations are gorgeous, rendered in oil and colored pencil on illustration board. Every page is awash with color, though most of the backgrounds are somewhat muted in tone compared to the expressive house. Although the parts of the house are primarily conveyed through eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, White manages to make each distinctive. The front door looks eager. The sunporch looks like a flamboyant opera star. The basement looks faintly villainous. It's amazing what a talented illustrator can do with eyebrows.

This is a rare picture book that I got to the end of, and wanted to immediately go back and read again. I think that this would make a wonderful read-aloud title for early elementary school kids (as does Franki). It's also a perfect bedtime book for a family just back from vacation. Highly recommended for kids of all ages.

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish
Publication Date: March 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: A Year of Reading

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Three Cabritos: Eric A. Kimmel

Book: The Three Cabritos
Author: Eric A. Kimmel
Illustrator: Stephen Gilpin
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5 to 8

The Three Cabritos, written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Stephen Gilpin, is a southwestern retelling of the Three Billy Goats Gruff story. I have a fondness for the story, because my much younger brother had a stuffed "Billy Guff" that he hung onto for years and years. In this case, three cabritos (young goats) decide to take their instruments across the Rio Grande into Mexico, to attend a fiesta. Their mother is concerned that the Chupacabra (goat-sucker) that lives under the bridge will attack them. But they dismiss her worries in cavalier fashion, and head out. Crossing the bridge one at a time, they each encounter the Chupacabra. However, they triumph over the monster, and have their fun.

It's a funny thing with these sorts of folk stories. If you actually look at the story in critical fashion, you often find that the plot doesn't hold up. In this case, the younger brothers each fob off the Chupacabra by suggesting that he wait for the bigger and tastier treat of an older brother. Then the oldest brother triumphs by saying "I forget to tell you. I have a magic accordion. When I play it, everyone has to keep dancing until I stop."

I must admit, I felt kind of cheated by the ending. I was already sort of miffed that the younger brothers were weasels and put the risk onto the oldest brother (though I know that's how the story works - the goats succeed by taking advantage of the monster's greed). But then the oldest brother suddenly has magic that we didn't know about? I wanted them to succeed by their cleverness. If the oldest brother had fobbed things off onto a non-existent fourth brother, thus tricking the Chupacabra, I would have been delighted. But for him to just suddenly have a magical accordion? It didn't work for me.

In the original tale (depending on which version you read) the third and largest brother defeats the monster via brute strength. Which is consistent with the story (The monster wants to wait for a bigger meal, but lo and behold, the bigger meal is strong enough to beat the monster, and he loses out. Stupid monster, paying for his greed!). But for the third brother to win via magic in this version seemed inconsistent. If he knew he had the magic accordion, why not just go first, and take the monster out, and not put the younger brothers at risk at all?

OK, sorry. I'm done quibbling. Clearly I'm not the right person to be reading re-told folk tales. The truth is that I'm happy to see this title, and that's why I've chosen to write about it. I think that there's a shortage of picture books that appeal to southwestern and Spanish-speaking readers, and that The Three Cabritos are a welcome addition. There's a handy glossary and pronunciation guide for the Spanish terms at the end of the book, and it's nice to see this folk tale transferred to a different culture. I also liked the the three brothers. They joyfully play their musical instruments, and spend their free time together. And they are brave in the face of adversity. The oldest brother is my favorite.

I also think that the illustrations in this book (drawn in #2 pencil, and then colored with Photoshop) are delightful. The Chupacabra is this enormous blue creature, with huge eyes and tiny legs. And it loves to dance! I want one (you know, about 8 inches high, not a life-size one). It's adorable. In general, the illustrations have an old-time, cartoonish sort of feel, one that works well with the southwestern theme. I half expected Wile E. Coyote to appear behind a cactus.

The Three Cabritos is a fun read, and I think that early elementary school kids will like it. Adult fans of re-told folk tales are bound to enjoy it, too. As for me, I love the very last page of the story best, but you'll have to read it to see for yourself.

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Children's Books
Publication Date: March 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Readia, Kiddie Lit

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Kid Tea: Elizabeth Ficocelli

Book: Kid Tea
Author: Elizabeth Ficocelli
Illustrator: Glin Dibley
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3 to 7

Isn't Kid Tea a great title for a picture book? Written by Elizabeth Ficocelli and illustrated by Glin Dibley, this rhyming, colorful book is sure to appeal to appeal to kids from preschool and early elementary school. Kid tea is what you get when you take a dirty kid, and steep said kid in the bathtub. Depending on the nature of the dirt, you get different colored teas. For example, if a kid spends the day making mud pies, then you will naturally get brown kid tea. But if the same kid spends the day eating blueberries, then you get blue kid tea. Simple but powerful, and oddly appealing.

Elizabeth Ficocelli's text shows her joy in wordplay. For example:

"Tuesday, new day,
Popsicles-to-choose day.
Lick and slurple,
melting purple,
dripping-down-my-chin day,
slipping-down-my-shins day."

Slurple. I love it. I also like "Saturday, splatter day, raindrops-getting-fatter day." Younger kids will enjoy the repetitive text, with the text on every other page spread reading:

"Dunk me in the tub, please,
for yellow kid tea!"

Or red kid tea. Or blue. Or brown. Glin Dibley's mixed-media pencil, acrylic and Photoshop illustrations are simple and joyful. Each picture of the colored tub water carries that color throughout the entire picture, so that the tiles behind the tub take on hues from lilac to pink, as the tub water gleams purple or red.

This is a quick but entertaining read, and an excellent book for before or after bath time. It could also work well for young kids first learning their colors. Be careful, though. The appealing phrases might get stuck in your head, and you'll find yourself walking around the house thinking "Dunk me in the tub, please, for more kid tea!"

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish
Publication Date: March 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Just One More Book (podcast), Tea Cozy, Chicken Spaghetti (recommended by Junior), In the Pages

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.